It's possible that in its next artistic chief, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will find a curator of great substance and keen instinct. A fund-raiser as deft as she is persuasive. A diplomat built from equal parts common touch and erudition, with the wisdom to know when and where to use which. A world traveler able to translate art trends into Philadelphia's particular cultural vernacular.

It's possible, but not likely.

Anne d'Harnoncourt's death Sunday hit the Art Museum like a kick in the stomach. With a ripe, three-decade career there already brimming with considerable achievement, she was in the midst of shaping the institution's grandest ambitions since it erected its Greek temple on Fairmount: a $590 million remake of the entire Philadelphia Museum of Art experience.

Her death leaves a void not only at the museum: D'Harnoncourt was a leader for the broader cultural community, as Gov. Rendell said. Compounded as it is by the deaths in recent years of other arts movers - Willard G. Rouse 3d in 2003, Robert Montgomery Scott in 2005, and Richard A. Doran last year - d'Harnoncourt's departure is an especially cruel blow.

Is there a new cultural leadership forming behind the old guard?

"Well, it's not clear yet," Rendell said.

As for the Art Museum's immediate future, leaders are quick to say what leaders say at times like this.

"I don't see any hiccup because of Anne's leaving. She was our guiding light, but the museum will continue in full stride," board chairman H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest said.

"The Art Museum does have ambitious plans," said Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca W. Rimel, "but if Anne were sitting on our shoulder she would say, 'Don't lose a minute in realizing that vision.' "

No doubt true. But who will be the next chief executive officer realizing that vision? And has d'Harnoncourt's towering figure cast a shadow so long that the worthiest of candidates will fear to follow in it?

In the short term, Lenfest has extended his tenure as chairman past his planned October departure as a search for a director commences. Art Museum spokesman Norman Keyes said it was "premature just now to speak to whether we will appoint an acting director and CEO."

Once a new director is in place, Lenfest says, he will step aside.

Questions

But before the Art Museum can answer the question of who its next CEO might be, it has a number of more philosophical questions to ask itself, museum professionals say.

Would a new CEO necessarily need to have grown up professionally on the artistic side of the business? Is being familiar with the lay of the land at the Art Museum an advantage? Would an art administrator moving from another institution in the city bring an important perspective?

How those questions are answered will dictate the direction of the search.

D'Harnoncourt's strong suit was art. "But will an art background be considered essential? That is a very critical, crucial question," said Danielle Rice, the executive director of the Delaware Art Museum, who had worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for 19 years.

If artistic pedigree is not a criterion, the museum could cast its net right inside the building, and make Gail M. Harrity its new CEO. Harrity, who came to the museum in 1997 as chief operating officer after supervising construction of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, is intimately familiar with the museum's expansion plans, financing and funders.

If art in fact is the most important criterion, the search could cast its eye at former Art Museum curators who, having gone elsewhere to develop their careers, might want to return to their roots. Anne Temkin, once a major presence at the Art Museum and now curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, would fit into that category, as would Mark Rosenthal, onetime curator of 20th-century art, and Rice herself.

Competition

Outside the museum's orbit, there's considerable competition for leadership right now. Among the U.S. museums looking for new directors are the Metropolitan, Kimbell, Guggenheim, the Hirshhorn, and Winterthur.

The Seattle Art Museum's director, Mimi Gates, on Monday announced that she will retire in just more than a year.

"Adding Philadelphia to the list, it's a very challenging time," said Millicent Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

"What I would recommend for them is to take some time to get over their emotions. I am sure that the museum has a very strong staff in place and will continue to run smoothly. But it's going to take some time for them to assess what their next step should be. They shouldn't do anything immediately.

"I think another thing that they should consider is hiring a search firm, which would know the complexities of running an art museum, but can be outsiders in that they have the ability to ask some serious, tough questions about the way the board looks to the future."

A facilitator can help lead the Art Museum board through a number of key issues, said Adrienne Horn, president of Museum Management Consultants. What's important to realize, she said, is that the era of museum directors staying 25 or 30 years is over. A more typical stay today is five to seven years.

That brings particular challenges to hiring a director for museums such as Philadelphia's.

"One of our observations in organizations looking to replace someone who has been there a long time is that everybody wants to find somebody who was like the person who was there. And no one ever does," Horn said. "And there is always disappointment. That person is always the sacrificial lamb and leaves after two years. And then they can bring on the person who can run the organization."

Sometimes short-term tenures are intentional. Bringing in someone adept at building projects might be smart for a museum when it's in expansion mode, switching to someone better at running museums after the expansion is done, Horn said.

What no one can know until much later is whether a new museum director will become a cultural conscience for the city, as d'Harnoncourt often was.

Or will the cultural landscape reshuffle to create a new hierarchy?

Rendell says the answers aren't yet obvious.

"Maybe there is no one who can step in and do everything Anne d'Harnoncourt did," he said. "And our leadership is not young. There's Gerry Lenfest [78], Ray Perelman [90], Harold Honickman [74]. They're the real drivers. There's [philanthropist] Joe Neubauer.

"But there is a group a little bit younger and they have the potential to step up. Larry Kent [of Kent & Kent, a private investment firm]. Connie Williams could step up and be a real cultural leader after she leaves the [state] Senate.

"We need to get people. They're there. They're just harder to motivate."

Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch.